Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

Have you got a growth mindset? How a new mindset can change everything


How do you view your own potential?

Do you see it as set in stone? Something that you were born with, or something that was shaped by your parents and schooling, and is now fixed and unchangeable? As ‘immutable qualities’ (I love that word, it just means unchangeable)?

Or do you believe that anything can change, grow and develop? That your potential is unlimited? That your beliefs are more likely to influence how you blossom and progress than your genetics?

I’ve just finished a fascinating book by Dr Carol S Dweck (Professor of Psychology at Stanford University), Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential.

The book examines the profound effects that changing people’s beliefs can have on them and their future, and provided me with a fascinating – and monumentous – insight into a way of thinking that can have far-reaching effects for every single one of us.

Nature versus nurture

Dweck starts her book by stating clearly that both nature (our genes) and nurture (our environment) interact to create our unique pattern of human qualities.  She asserts that when this is coupled with new research that shows we have more capacity for lifelong learning and brain development than we have ever historically thought, the fact that we can continue to change our environment gives us the opportunity to continue developing throughout life.

But Dweck’s book looks not at this issue itself, but rather, at what the consequences are of holding the belief that human qualities such as personality or intelligence are set in stone, versus holding the belief that these are something you can continue to develop throughout life.

She calls these a ‘fixed mindset’ (the belief they are carved in stone) and a ‘growth mindset’ (where what you’re born with is the starting point for development, rather than the finishing point).

Fixed mindset versus growth mindset

She characterises the fixed mindset by the example of an individual who sees what happens to them (a C on a test, a parking ticket, not getting a promotion at work) as a ‘direct measure of their competence and worth’, perhaps thinking ‘I’m a reject’ or ‘I’m a loser’.  Because of this, those individuals are less likely to put effort into doing well in those –  and other – things.

Those with the growth mindset, when faced with the same challenges, would attack the problem directly, seeing the setback as just that, one setback that hard work or a change in approach could help them to navigate in the future. Problems become an opportunity for growth and development, rather than a setback that means they will no longer try.

The book has many examples and research supporting her assertions.  And critically, she believes the growth mindset can be cultivated and developed, because it is based on beliefs: powerful beliefs, perhaps, but something in our mind, which can be changed.  Changed by us as individuals, but also by parents, teachers and managers.

How a growth mindset can change our attitude towards development

This concept can help us to completely change our attitude towards development.

For example, if we have a fixed mindset as a manager, then we see the team member who’s not currently doing so well as someone who needs to be eased out of the team.  If we have a fixed mindset as an individual, then owning up to our mistakes at work means we constantly feel we need to prove ourselves, and may take on easier tasks to ensure we don’t get things wrong or make mistakes.

If we have a growth mindset as an individual, we see success as being about learning, developing and growing.  Mistakes are a part and parcel of that, so although it might be disappointing to fail at something, it’s not the end of the world.

Dweck points at the ‘talent mindset’ of the 90s, what she believes was the tendency of business to throw money at those they thought were ‘naturals’ at business.  Their mistake, she believes, was creating a culture which had total faith in ‘talent’ – forcing employees to look and act ‘extraordinarily talented’.  Essentially, it forced them into the fixed mindset, meaning they avoided admitting, and thus correcting, any deficiencies.

In contrast, she cites Jim Collins’s excellent work ‘From Good to Great’ as showing that one key factor in ensuring companies thrived was a CEO who kept asking questions and had the ability to look failure in the face and maintain faith that success would be achieved in the end. Such CEOs believe in human development – a growth mindset.

Contrasting CEOs

One of her examples focuses on the two contrasting CEOs, Lou Gerstner, called in to turn around IBM, and Lee Iacocca at Chrysler Motors.  The former embraced a growth mindset, persisting with change despite initial stock prices being stagnant – but his persistence and effort and openness to learning paid off, and he brought IBM to lead its field again.  Lee Iacocca however, with a fixed mindset, kept bringing out similar models of cars, surrounded himself with ‘worshippers’ and lost touch with where his field was going.  He had become a non-learner.

Dweck uses other examples to make her point, ranging from sports people, to the inspiring story of Seabiscuit, and even Groundhog Day as examples of a growth mindset. Remember Bill Murray? Eventually taking charge of the situation, learning and growing each time until he was able to escape Groundhog Day?

Have you got a growth mindset or a fixed mindset?

Employing a growth mindset

How do we employ a growth mindset?  One way is to give the right sort of feedback.  Not feedback that praises someone for great performance or the smartest idea, but praise for taking initiative or learning something new, or seeing a difficult task through.

Instead of praising a child, for example, for coming top of the class, we should praise her for putting in the effort to revise for the test in the first place. Reinforcing learning behaviours rather than outcomes.

In relationships, we shouldn’t compliment our partners for how beautiful or handsome they are, but for the creativity they put into choosing our anniversary present.

The deeper issue is that your own mindset will impact on how you interact with others.

For example, if you are a manager with a fixed mindset, you are unlikely to invest in coaching employees, as you think they can’t be changed – they either ‘have it’ or they don’t.  Dweck suggests one reason training programmes aren’t always effective is because of this pervasive fixed mindset in business – she suggests training programmes should begin with a workshop on growth mindset. She says: “When managers were taught a growth mindset, they were more willing to coach employees and the quality of their developmental coaching became higher. Also, managers with a growth mindset actually sought more negative feedback from their subordinates. They wanted to learn how to improve their management techniques and were not threatened by the idea of hearing some negative things about themselves.”

How does this all help us?

The book has been an interesting one for me, as it has made me examine some of my own beliefs around what potential actually is.  I’m still open to new information about the area – I love to learn – but at the moment I think I’m between the camps.  Ah, the middle way…

I certainly believe we can measure someone’s current human qualities, such as their abilities and personality, through psychometrics.  And they can be a great indicator of potential, as many people (often especially as someone becomes more senior, I’m sad to say) won’t continue to work on their development, and may become ‘stuck’ at this level.  But I also believe that people can change, which I think links into the growth mindset – Dweck’s work suggests those with this mindset are the most likely to change and grow.

It was really interesting to read recently in this article with advice from the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, that her father used to ask his children every day “What did you fail at today?” and was disappointed if there were no failures.  He showed his children failure isn’t an outcome but involves a lack of trying.  Failing big was a good thing – teaching them the growth mindset.  And it clearly worked!

As employers, we want to hire the right person for a job, but the right person doesn’t always come along, or can’t be found.  And the idea that we could ever find the perfect measure of ‘potential’ is probably more like science fiction anyway. Having a growth mindset can mean that we can draw out and develop the qualities required for successful performance.

So for the minute, manager or employee, teacher or parent, my suggestion is to be one of the ones with the growth mindset.

You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

Now go and rent Groundhog Day.

What’s your mindset? What do you really believe about your own potential?

What would happen if you chose a growth mindset?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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